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Risky Business: One String Quartet's Rise to the Top

June 15, 2010

The career path of a professional musician is not standard, by any means. The steps are only loosely prescribed, and the journey is wildly varied. Those who make it create their own opportunities, especially a young string quartet striving to carve out a place in a field with no job description. And what a career looks like can differ as much as the identity of the group itself. Meet the Hausmann String Quartet — first violinist Isaac Allen, second violinist Bram Goldstein, violist Angela Choong, and cellist Yuan Zhang — a dynamic young quartet that’s on the way up, pursuing a lifetime of chamber music one day at a time.

The halls are lively in the Creative Arts Center at San Francisco State University. A cacophony of various instruments is heard bleeding through closed doors of the practice rooms. Students stop to chat with each other on their way to rehearsal or to class. Some take a lunch break outside in the sunshine. This fertile environment is where the Hausmann Quartet has spent the last year in residence on the Morrison Fellowship Award, at the Morrison Center for the Advanced Study of Chamber Music. The draw is the chance to work with the Alexander String Quartet, directors of the educational program since 1989, and of course, a world-class quartet.

Catching the Chamber Music Bug

As individual musicians, the Hausmanns are highly gifted, well-trained, and motivated — essential requirements for success in this field. Their average age is 30, and they’ve been playing their instruments for 25 of those years. All are passionate about playing chamber music. For Allen, tall with dark, serious eyes and a calm and thoughtful demeanor, it was growing up around chamber music that sparked his interest. “Every summer I saw the Orion Quartet, the Mendelssohn Quartet, and the Guarneri Quartet in open rehearsals and concerts,” he said. “When I was really little, I remember my grandmother aggressively approaching Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet to get him to listen to me play. I idolized and looked up to these people.”

Choong, petite and pretty, with a quietly powerful presence, had a similar experience. She grew up in the chamber music town of Columbus, Ohio, on a steady diet of the Cavanni String Quartet, among others. Like many other quartet violists, Choong began her musical life as a violinist. She switched to the viola when the Hausmann Quartet suddenly needed a violist in 2008. And since she was married to Allen by that time, it didn’t seem prudent to say “no.”

Listen to the Music

Zhang and Goldstein discovered string quartet literature a bit later, in music school. Goldstein, a Canadian with laughing eyes, intended to become a doctor, but detoured at the last minute, enrolling for a four-year music degree at McGill University in Montreal. There he fell in love with the depth of the quartet repertoire. Zhang came to the U.S. to attend Interlochen Arts Academy at age 17, where he first met Allen. He says: “My first training was in Chinese music since my father was a Chinese opera musician. I didn’t have much of a chance to play chamber music. When I did, I loved it more than solo work. In ensembles I feel like I can breathe.” Zhang tells his story in confident, impeccable English, having overcome the language barrier that was significant on his arrival.

It Takes Dedication

Since forming at the LyricaFest in New Jersey in 2004 (initially with a different violist) while students at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the group has spent the past six years learning how to live and breathe as one. As Choong puts it, “It’s one thing to sight-read quartets for fun, but another thing to have a daily relationship, to work together, and have a business together.” To get the mentoring required, the Hausmann Quartet has spent its summers at festivals in Norfolk and Aspen, at [email protected], at the Great Lakes Festival, and at the Blossom Music Festival, to name a few. Such prestigious gatherings are by invitation only and offer coaching with the greatest living chamber musicians, as well as performance debuts.

Year-round, a logical haven for the developing string quartet is a student or artist residency, so on graduating from Longy the Hausmann Quartet headed off to Kent State University in Ohio to work with the Miami String Quartet. There they focused on musical training, began to secure more professional concert bookings, and were invited to showcase their wares at the Chamber Music America Conference where they met their manager. When it was time to move on, they jumped at the chance of the residency at San Francisco State. Among other benefits, Zhang says, “The Alexander Quartet is teaching us a lot of the business side of music — things you might learn in business school, like negotiating contracts, managing our own organization, delegating tasks among ourselves according to our strengths. You don’t learn that in music school.”

Creative Outreach

The Alexander String Quartet’s cellist, Sandy Walsh-Wilson, says that the Morrison Program guides its ensembles in “learning how to be meaningful and fundamentally relevant in their space and their place. A professional quartet today must be viable within their community and be comfortable in many different applications.” Which is why the Hausmanns spend their time teaching mixed ensembles, including keyboard and winds, and presenting in interdisciplinary humanities classes like history or literature at SFSU, in addition to the typical six hours per day they rehearse together. The Quartet members agree that taking the role of chamber music advocates is important to building their own professional identity and a loyal following. Says Choong, “In order to succeed we’re going to have to develop relationships with all kinds of audiences through performing and teaching. It’s easy to get stuck in a rehearsal room bubble and forget about the larger community.”

Competitions are often another way to gain notoriety, or a concert tour, or a recording contract, but until now they have all been out of the question for the Hausmanns. The Quartet has put in countless hours preparing specific competition repertoire, and was accepted to participate in the Holy Grail of competitions, the ARD in Munich, as well as at the International Chamber Music Competition in Hamburg, the Bordeaux, and at many more, only to be heartbroken — turned down by immigration officials. It seems that Zhang’s U.S. visa is not in order, so he is considered a flight risk. This summer the Hausmanns finally look forward to resolving the issues and participating in the Banff International String Quartet Competition, pitted against the Afiara String Quartet, their friendly rivals and previous Morrison Fellows.

Back to the “bubble.” One day recently, the Quartet had a coaching session at SFSU with Zak Grafilo, first violinist with the Alexanders. They began the finale of the Schumann Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 41, at the Presto tempo marked in the score until Zak called out, “scrambled eggs!” and urged them to take it a bit slower. They worked several passages, cleaning up the articulation of the accompaniment. The energy was palpable as the instruments expertly traded eighth notes, keeping the tempo lively, and now, tighter than ever. Working with humor and respect is the norm in the Quartet, with or without a coach, and everyone was having fun. The response to Grafilo’s phrasing and bowing suggestions was eager and the result instantly apparent. It’s clearly more efficient to be led than having to build consensus as a group — a critical skill the Hausmann String Quartet has been honing this year.

The following evening, San Francisco Performances presented them at the Salon at the Rex series, where the audience was impressed not only with their music-making but also with their personable introductions of the works and the Q&A afterward. (Question: “What is the hall you’d most like to play in?” Answer: “Carnegie, and Salzburg’s Mozarteum.”) The Schumann Presto movement sparkled, showing nothing of the previous day’s labors.

Plans for next year are still fluid. They’d like to extend their stay in San Francisco, or perhaps move to a residency in San Diego. For now, they don’t feel ready for the professional world, though they’re getting close. They’d like to continue teaching and performing as a faculty quartet in residence at an academic institution. But if they were offered a concert tour of the world, they certainly wouldn’t turn it down.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.